Would a Real-Life ‘Purge’ Work?

By  · Published on September 29th, 2014

Universal Pictures

Waking up in today’s world has become more and more depressing. Even before I roll out of bed, I will usually grab my phone and settle into a morning routine of checking email and social media. Unfortunately, the latter has become less about socially interacting and more about sharing awful stories of the human condition.

Before I manage to brush my teeth, I’m bombarded with news stories and links about terrible things that people do to each other. My Facebook feed is quickly becoming a giant international police blotter. With all the injustices in the world going on, it makes me wonder if there’s something we could do about it.

I recently re-watched The Purge and also saw its sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, this past summer. Aside from there being 12 hours of hell to deal with once a year, the series’ titular event – an annual night of anything goes – seemed to be working for the people in the movies.

That got me thinking: with crime seemingly spiraling out of control, would a real-life Purge really work?

The Answer: Sure, it would end up killing a lot of people, if that’s the point.

Seriously, though, are you kidding? No, an Annual Purge wouldn’t solve anything, and it would probably make things a lot worse.

If you haven’t seen The Purge, the gist is that in 2022 (which takes place only a confusingly short nine years from the release of the film), America has pulled itself up by its bootstraps and a new government allows one night a year for the citizens to go crazy and get all the crime out of their systems.

Here’s the announcement you hear in the film:

This is not a test. This is your Emergency Broadcast System announcing the commencement of The Annual Purge, sanctioned by the U.S. Government. Weapons of Class 4 and lower have been authorized for use during the Purge. All other weapons are restricted. Government officials of ranking 10 have been granted immunity from the Purge and shall not be harmed. Commencing at the siren, any and all crime, including murder, will be legal for 12 continuous hours. Police, fire and emergency medical services will be unavailable until tomorrow morning at 7am, when the Purge concludes. Blessed be our New Founding Fathers and America, a nation reborn. May God be with you all.

Aside from a series of Purge threats in various states, including Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, and Georgia, this is a work of fiction. (And fortunately, while these threats did not emerge as real Purge events, they wouldn’t count because law enforcement and emergency services did not stand down for the evening.)

The Purge could be said to be a possible solution to crime because approximately 70% of all murder convictions are for premeditated acts. However, there are still a lot of impulsive crimes out there, and even premeditated murder can be impulsive if the killer simply plans to commit murder only minutes before it happens.

There is, in fact, a strong correlation between impulsive behavior and crime. According to a study done in the United Kingdom, 21%-45% of its prison population had some form of ADHD. Of course, that’s not to say that ADHD causes violent crime, but it does suggest a certain degree of impulse control is lacking in many criminals. In fact, many of the violent acts caused by youth perpetrators can also be linked to impulse control.

In short, a large number of criminal acts result from spontaneous decisions and reactions. Those committing the acts aren’t likely to wait around six or seven months for the next Purge to take care of things. Instead, they will commit the crimes on the spot.

The real answer to preventing crime is a lot more complicated, and it includes long-form, intricate policies that include community action and education, as well as oversight for chronic cases. There is no easy answer, and there is no quick solution that the Purge claims to provide – unless you really just want to kill a lot of people and leave a wake of destruction in your path.

What if society gets a taste for it?

Part of the biggest problems in crime is that criminal behavior tends to repeat itself. That’s not to say “once a criminal, always a criminal,” but there is plenty of evidence out there that certain criminal behaviors recur over the years.

Recidivism occurs when a person repeats unwanted behavior that previously resulted in negative consequences. One way this is measured is by how many people sentenced and convicted of a crime will become repeat offenders.

A staggering number of felons find themselves arrested multiple times after a conviction, and even after serving serious jail time. Approximately 75% of felons are arrested within three years of being released from prison. Even before they make it to prison, 35% of felons have 10 or more arrests on record. In the end, almost 50% of felons are convicted again for a crime similar to what they originally served time for.

When it comes to those not even arrested or convicted, the numbers are speculative and exponential. In the case of sex offenders, some studies suggest that close to 90% of those who commit the crime are repeat offenders.

And speaking of sex offenders, that’s another skewed perspective from the Purge:

Murder isn’t always the worst thing you can do.

There are many, many other types of crime that aren’t even addressed in the Purge movies. Murder is held up as the golden chalice of crime, but there are so many other awful, horrible, terrifying things that can be done to a person.

Even if you look at the general crime statistics in the United States (from 2012, the most recent full year available from the FBI), there were fewer than 15,000 murders in the country. However, there were almost 85,000 rapes (and those were only the ones that were reported as forcible rape to be categorized by the FBI as a “violent crime”), more than 350,000 robberies and more than 760,000 aggravated assaults.

Sure, murder is bad, but rape and violent assault overshadows it in the extreme. This would include chronic behavior over the 12-hour Purge and could mean torture and being forced to watch graphic acts against your family and close friends.

This would not be without a lasting psychological effect.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) isn’t just something that happens to combat veterans and people in the worst situations imaginable. This is a real disorder that happens to people for a variety of reasons, which can also include simply feeling helpless amid violence or fearing for your life or the life of a family member.

It’s clear from The Purge and The Purge: Anarchy that any populated area becomes a war zone. It also exists in a situation that legalizes murder. Considering combat veterans face these kinds of threats, it makes sense to compare the results of a Purge to the results of real-life combat.

PTSD has been observed in 10%-20% of combat veterans of recent wars, and it was observed in 30% of combat veterans from Vietnam. Though criminal behavior is not a symptom of PTSD, it can lead to bad decisions and antisocial behavior, which includes substance abuse and domestic violence. This is why soldiers suffering from PTSD can be considered at-risk for criminal behavior.

Victims of violent crime often suffer from PTSD. In some instances, particularly rape, the symptoms can manifest up to three months after the attack. Many victims don’t even receive PTSD counseling until three years or more from the time of the attack. And while crime victims can recover from these events, the scars from the attacks have long-lasting effects and are subject to a fast recovery.

In the end, the Purge makes for an interesting piece of speculative fiction, but were it put into place, it would be disastrous to society. Sure, it would kill a lot of people (which seems to be the narrow end-game of the writers of the films), but it would solve few problems. In fact, the resulting minefield of victims would put an unprecedented strain on a society burdened with recovery and counseling to clean up the larger messes the Purge would create.

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